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Economy

N.Y. Gov. Cuomo Signs Marijuana Legalization

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat who represents Buffalo, speaks at a rally for marijuana legalization at the New York state Capitol in Albany on Jan. 28, 2020.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat who represents Buffalo, speaks at a rally for marijuana legalization at the New York state Capitol in Albany on Jan. 28, 2020.

Updated March 31, 2021 at 11:45 AM ET

Democrats who dominate New York state politics pushed through a marijuana legalization measure Tuesday that backers say will expunge the felony drug records of tens of thousands of people.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on Wednesday. He had said earlier that it will bring "justice for long-marginalized communities."

The bill legalizes recreational marijuana for adults. It is now legal to possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis. Sales of recreational-use marijuana won't be legal until the state establishes regulations.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who championed the measure for years, told NPR her first goal was to keep people in her Buffalo, N.Y., community out of prison.

"It's been horrible," she said. "This specific war on drugs dismantled a huge chunk of our population."

Peoples-Stokes, who serves as the Assembly majority leader in Albany, said racially biased drug arrests have ravaged minority neighborhoods across the state for decades.

A study of pot busts made last year by the New York City Police Department found 94% of those arrested were Black or Hispanic.

According to Peoples-Stokes, those policies, which have resulted in felony records for so many people, have ruined lives and devastated communities.

"It's very difficult to get access to federal dollars to go to school. It's very difficult to get a job," she said.

Peoples-Stokes' measure, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger from Manhattan, will end most marijuana arrests.

It also commits to investing 40% of New York's future marijuana tax revenues in neighborhoods harmed by high rates of drug arrests.

Legalization advances, but marijuana arrests continue

Experts say pot legalization is happening in New York at a moment when the country's laws are deeply fractured.

Marijuana is a booming legal business in more and more states — 15 states and the District of Columbia have now taken the step.

Virginia is also poised to move forward, with Gov. Ralph Northam urging state lawmakers to make possessing up to an ounce of marijuana legal by July 1.

But selling or possessing even small amounts of cannabis remains a federal crime. It's also still illegal under the laws of most states.

"There is still what we would call a war on marijuana in many places, disproportionately harming communities of color," said Ezekiel Edwards of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Edwards co-authored a study last year that found Black and brown people remain three times more likely to be arrested for pot possession compared with white people.

He noted that marijuana arrests have risen in recent years in more than a dozen states.

Legal pot for white sellers, a black market for people of color

As legalization moves forward, meanwhile, another fault line has developed.

In states where marijuana sales have gone legit, people of color who were once part of the industry are often excluded.

"It has been really bumpy," said Andrew Freedman, who was Colorado's pot czar for three years before working as a consultant for other states looking at legalization.

Freedman works now with a group attempting to decriminalize pot at the federal level. He said the barriers to entry for people of color in the legal marijuana business are daunting.

"First of all, a lot of people want into this industry so there's a lot of competition," he said. "Second, it's an expensive industry because there are so many regulations, and it's simply expensive to operate."

These hurdles have forced many people of color to continue buying illegally. As a consequence, a black market for marijuana winds up operating side by side with the legal industry.

Rosalie Liccardo Pacula is an economist at the University of Southern California who studies drug policy and marijuana legalization.

She told NPR many Black and brown dealers around the U.S. still sell their products outside the regulated pot market. In some cases, the threat of arrest and prosecution has grown.

"The legal market companies didn't like the fact that the black market is still around," Pacula said. "So targeted enforcement began happening against the same minorities."

A more inclusive pot industry in N.Y.?

Supporters said New York's legalization measure was written specifically to avoid this kind of inequity.

"I think it's just a real game changer and sets a new model for what legalization should look like in this country," said Melissa Moore, who heads the New York chapter of a group called the Drug Policy Alliance.

She points out New York's marijuana legalization measure provides investment capital to help people of color transition into the legal pot business. It's a strategy elected officials in other states such as New Jersey, Illinois and Virginia have said they're trying to take, too, sometimes with varying results.

In New York, people can also apply for "social equity" dispensary licenses, reserved for those who can show their business would benefit people and communities hurt by past drug policies.

Moore said state lawmakers spent time "really trying to anticipate what have been some of the problems elsewhere that we can get ahead of here."

There's a lot at stake. State officials predict New York's pot industry will eventually create tens of thousands of jobs with more than $350 million a year in tax revenue.

Peoples-Stokes, the assemblywoman from Buffalo, said she's convinced that people of color will be part of her state's legal marijuana boom.

"It's our plan to make sure that happens. We've put all the guardrails in place to support that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.